WACO, Texas – Before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the best black baseball players in the country showcased their talents in the Negro Leagues for teams like the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Birmingham Black Barons.
While they weren’t the most recognizable teams in the circuit, Waco was right at the center of Negro League baseball in Texas.
The Negro Leagues as we know them were based in the northeast and midwest – where life was integrated. In the Jim Crow south, however, teams like those in the Texas Negro League served as minor league teams and would have a short domestic schedule, sprinkled with barn-storming trips.
For black baseball fans in the south, these games were seen as celebrations and safe havens.
“In a lot of these cities, really, the only gatherings they could have that they knew would be safe and just alright would be church gatherings and baseball gatherings,” says baseball historian Eric Robinson.
From the late 19th century to almost the middle of the 20th century, several teams represented Waco in the Texas Negro Leagues – including the Black Navigators, the Black Cardinals, and most notably, the Waco Yellow Jackets.
“Kind of the Rosetta Stone for Waco Negro League baseball history is this team that often gets mentioned in association with Rube Foster, and that’s the Waco Yellow Jackets,” says Texas Sports Hall of Fame Vice President Jay Black.
Rube Foster is a Hall of Fame pitcher who founded the top flight of Negro League baseball in 1920. Rube not only played in Waco, but was born in Calvert.
“Maybe just for producing Rube Foster, the most important team in Texas Negro League history was the Waco Yellow Jackets,” Robinson said.
In Texas, Negro Leagues proved unsustainable, as they would fold and re-form every few seasons, but Waco always had one of the flagship clubs.
For Waco baseball fans white and black, Katy Park was their cathedral.
“It was kind of the major, focal, outdoor gathering point for important events,” Black said. “When significant teams and personalities would come to Waco and they needed a large space, Katy Park was the spot.”
All of the city’s Negro League teams played at Katy Park, which stood in downtown Waco on what is now land owned by Magnolia, and it even hosted the Texas Negro Leagues championship series in the 1940s.
One of the Park’s greatest hours came in 1929 when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the dynastic New York Yankees came to town and played an exhibition. For black baseball fans in Waco, their baseball royalty wouldn’t come until the next year, when the Kansas City Monarchs faced off against the Black Cardinals on May 5th, 1930, bringing a welcome (but temporary) present with them.
“The big feature in that 1930 tour was the Kansas City Monarchs had lights that they would travel with, and nighttime baseball,” Robinson said.
The 8-0 Monarchs victory was historic as the first nighttime baseball game ever played in the state of Texas.
Without being able to watch their favorite teams on TV or even read their box scores in the newspaper, these games became once-in-a-lifetime events.
“This is a community who probably never would have had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City to see the major league of the Negro League players and some of the premiere teams play on their home field,” Black said. “The fact that they would come to Waco, it must’ve been a must-see event for the African-American community.”
Negro League players and teams were subject to tough conditions, often sleeping on the team bus overnight when they couldn’t find a hotel to serve them, and playing on ratty fields and with shoddy equipment, far from the major league standard we see today.
Because of the lack of media coverage surrounding the leagues, much of the players’ stories are left to oral history rather than pure statistics.
“Almost poetically, some of these guys, the stories and the oral histories that have been handed down are almost more beautiful and more impressive, more legendary than if you have Josh Gibson’s black and white, cut and dry, this is what he hit in how many at bats. This was his average. This is how many home runs he hit,” Black said.
For historians looking back, the real tragedy can be likened to S.E. Hinton’s book, “The Outsiders.” There is a story of two different types of people in two very different living situations, on either side of town, watching the same sunsets and finding great excitement and comfort in the same game, but feeling thousands of miles apart.